An Interview with Kumail Nanjiani

Binary oppositions set up in this interview:
Set design/punk rock
Video games/writing
Computer science/comedy

An Interview with Kumail Nanjiani

Binary oppositions set up in this interview:
Set design/punk rock
Video games/writing
Computer science/comedy

An Interview with Kumail Nanjiani

Jane Marie
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Comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s star is on the rise. And the speed of his particular ascent has caused time to move in a funny way.

It took exactly three months to book this interview. We’d go back and forth and back and forth via email with his assistant, Brad, chiming in every once in a while to suggest possible times we could meet. I’d confirm. And then threads would just… die. Then, when we finally did commit to a time, I was stood up. I arrived at Nanjiani’s new Spanish-style jewel-box home in East Los Angeles ten minutes early, so my husband drove us around the block a few times before dropping me off in front of a small but imposing hedge wall with a security door in it. I rang the buzzer. No answer. The next time, I held the button down long enough to hear a little chiming melody coming from inside the house. Minutes passed. I placed the miniature potted cactus I’d brought as a housewarming gift on the ground next to the door and tried to get up on my tiptoes and peek into the only window visible behind the hedgerow. An open tray of Oreo cookies sat ignored on the kitchen counter. No lights were on. Finally, I texted. “Hi Kumail! I’m here.” Seconds later my phone rang. “I’m so, so sorry! I fucked up!”

Given the nature of his jammed schedule, it’s a miracle this doesn’t happen more often. Ever since he appeared on Portlandia as “the cell phone guy,” Kumail has been booked. A quick rundown of his current projects: he has starring roles in three cable television shows: Franklin and Bash on TNT, HBO’s Silicon Valley, and Comedy Central’s The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, which he cocreated and on which he plays himself, and which premiered on the day we spoke.

In addition to the television gigs, he’s landed a feature role in an upcoming film starring Sally Field, and hosts two podcasts—The Indoor Kids, which is about video games, and The X-Files Files, about, well, you guessed it. As if that wasn’t enough, he also hosts a weekly stand-up showcase in Los Angeles and performs around the country, toggling between observational and autobiographical material, frequently cast through the lens of an outsider who didn’t learn English until he was eighteen. His recent stand-up special, Beta Male, covers everything from his love of horror movies to growing up Muslim in Pakistan. He’s a natural storyteller and comedian—and Nanjiani has a sense of humor in real life, which is surprisingly uncommon in the comedy world.

We sat down together the day after he forgot about me. I walked through a barely unpacked house that opens onto a Shangri-la of a backyard: there’s a pool, more hedgerows, luxe outdoor furniture, and a guest house that he’s turned into his home office. After trying to sell me the washer and dryer being stored in the room, he offered me the only chair, and I made some crack about him doing the interview from the bed draped in red linens in the middle of the room—it being the only other place to sit down. He laughed heartily, grabbed a chair from the yard, sat, leaned forward, smiled, and clapped his hands together as if to say, OK, let’s begin!

—Jane Marie

THE BELIEVER: How excited are you that The Meltdown came out today?

KUMAIL NANJIANI: It’s interesting, because we’ve been working on this thing for so long, and when you’re working on something for so long, you don’t think about how people are going to receive it. It’s just this thing you’re working on in a room every day for six months, and a total of ten people have seen it. And then it comes out and now everyone can see it. It’s jarring. I felt the same way about Silicon Valley. It’s like, “Oh, right, it’s not just ours anymore. It’s everyone’s.”

BLVR: I imagine you had the same experience we did in making the This American Life television show. You knew what the content of the show would be, because it already existed, so mainly it was the look you were concerned with. Was that mostly what you talked about?

KN: When we did the pilot, for me the look was the least important part. Then I realized I was wrong; it’s a very important part. Comedy Central has been so great, but when we were first doing the pilot they were like, “The only notes are you have to dress up the room.” And we were like, “No way! This is punk rock! This is the way it is!” And then when I actually watched the pilot I thought that was actually a good note.

When we sent in the first couple of episodes and we got notes, I kind of freaked out. I was like, “Oh, man, we’re not on the same page with the vision of this thing.” So we had a couple-hour-long phone call with everybody going line by line through the notes, being like, “This is a good note. Now this? This is not the show we pitched you guys. This is not the show we wanted.” And they totally got it. That was the hardest thing: there’s a live show, and translating it to TV, you know what it’s not. It’s hard to know what it is, but you know when it doesn’t feel right. So it was more a process of elimination rather than being like, “This is the goal!” It was more like, “Well, this doesn’t feel right, so change it until you find something that everybody thinks doesn’t feel wrong. And hopefully that’s right.”

BLVR: I prefer that way of working.

KN: For me, doing stand-up, I felt myself getting better the moment I took the pressure away from myself to have everything be perfect and, you know, magical. It used to be that I would wait for inspiration to hit, and if it wasn’t right the first time, it wasn’t meant to be. Now my stories take three or four months to fix, and it’s not that magical of a process. Ultimately it’s a boring, difficult process. I write everything out, and then the parts I think are funny I put in bold. Then I go perform it. Then the parts that aren’t funny, I unbold them. Then I look at the page, like, “All right, this area needs more bold. What joke can I put in there?” So I put in a joke. It’s an arduous, unsexy process.

BLVR: You do a visual assessment of the page, and that’s how you see if you’re getting enough jokes in?

KN: Yeah. You can see just by looking—like, there’s two minutes here where there’s not enough laughter, so I have to put some in. I started doing a podcast about The X-Files, and I was talking to Mark Snow, who made the theme song for the show, which is this amazing, perfect theme song. When I hear that song it brings me back to being a kid in Pakistan watching it. And I was so excited to talk to him, and I wrote down all these questions, and one of the questions was “When you finally got the theme song, were you like, ‘Here, say no to this! Fuck you! Nailed it!’?” And it was so interesting what he said: he said that he and Chris Carter, the creator, were working on this song, going back and forth, and nothing felt right, and then his elbow hit a thing on the keyboard and it put some echo there and he was like, “Oh, that sounds better.” And then he found this thing on his keyboard, “Whistling Joe,” which is the melody, the boo doo boo doo doo doooooo. That thing? And his wife came in and was like, “That sounds nice, but I’m not jumping up and down for it.” Then Chris came over and was like, “That’s fine. It’s not amazing, but it doesn’t feel wrong, so let’s go with it.” So then he went to the meeting with the Fox executives and played the theme song. When it was done all the executives kind of look at him, and they’re like, “What do you think?” “I dunno, what you do think?” So they put it on the show, and it becomes this huge, iconic thing, this massive song—there are dance remixes and bluegrass covers, and it’s one of the most iconic TV show themes of all time. And then the Fox exec called him and said, “Remember when you came in and hit play and as soon as it was done I was like, ‘Genius!’?” And Mark Snow was like, “Yeah, I remember that.”

I thought it would be like a thunderbolt, and you have this magical fucking thing and it’s perfection on the page. No! A lot of it is not up to you; a lot of it is up to the people who are experiencing it. To me, that really blew my mind. He didn’t put pressure on himself to come up with the perfect thing. It became perfect through everyone’s experience of it.

BLVR: When you did put that kind of pressure on yourself, how did it manifest? Did you walk around all day with your stomach in knots?

KN: I certainly wasn’t having as much fun as I wanted to. I wasn’t writing that much then, because I was thinking, This isn’t an amazing idea. I also had this thing where if I’d get an idea, I’d be so scared to sit down and work on it, because what if it wasn’t great? In my head it has the potential to be great, but if I actualize it and it’s not great, then I don’t have that idea. When I took that pressure off, I just started writing a lot more, and my stuff started being a lot better. I’m a lot prouder of the stuff I have now than back then, when I thought, God is speaking through me, or whatever. Dan Harmon—the creator of Community—was saying, “I’m not a good writer. Two percent of what I write is good. So you take out the 98 percent that is bad and you rewrite it and now you have 4 percent that’s good. And then you take that out and now you have 6 percent that’s good.” I think all that matters is that you’re writing.

BLVR: When you open your computer, what kinds of things are you ready to work on at any given time? Is it mostly stand-up?

KN: These days it’s not stand-up. Emily [Gordon, Nanjiani’s wife] and I wrote this movie together, and we’ve been getting notes from Judd Apatow. We just sent off the fourth draft today. It’s a very personal story about Emily getting sick. Emily got really sick in 2007, about eight months into us dating. She was in a coma. I hung out with her parents, and when she came out of it, she was like, “What the fuck is happening? Why do you know all my stories?” Because I hung out with her parents while she was in a coma for eight days! That’s when I told my parents, “Hey! Good news/bad news. Actually, for you guys, bad news/good news? I dunno, anyway: I’m in love with a white girl and she’s in a coma. I don’t know how you’re going to take either of those.”  Luckily they were really, really good about it and they saw how distraught I was and they saw how much I loved her. And they obviously aren’t monsters, so they were like, “Well, you have to get married right now.” So that’s what happened.

So I put so much pressure on myself: this has got to be perfect, this is our story. And Judd was really good about it. He said, “Just write stuff. Just write whatever comes to you and then you take out the stuff that doesn’t make sense and then you rewrite it.” The story itself is such a story. The structure was already there. Just sitting down and vomiting on the page really took the pressure off.

BLVR: I love rewriting because I feel like there’s direction. Are you sensitive about notes and edits?

KN: I don’t think so; I love constructive criticism. I love getting notes when I’m acting. I love them telling me what to do. I don’t always agree with it, but I really need it. When they don’t give me notes, that freaks me out. Like, “What? You’re just gonna—”

BLVR: “—let me suck?”

KN: Yeah! Tell me something! With Judd it’s been good. You think everything is important, and then he tells you, “Well, you could lose this.” Initially you’re like, “Hmm, I dunno. It really happened.” But then you look at it and you’re like, “No, they’re right.” We color-coded note cards: this scene is about me and my stand-up; this scene is about me and Emily; this scene is about me and Emily’s parents; this scene is about me and my parents. And you lay them out and they’re all color-coded and you can look and see if there’s too much of one color, too little of another color. Same as the bolding thing. That process is really helpful because you’re like, “You don’t need all of this, that’s just scenes of—”

BLVR: “—me, me, me, me, me!”

KN: Well, no, you need that. That’s important. That’s the most important part. [Laughs]

So that’s been the main thing lately, writing the movie. We shoot Silicon Valley in October so I thought, I have the summer off; I need a project. Oh, I’ll rewatch all of The X-Files and talk about it. I was just going to do it as a little thing, but it turns out people are ready to talk about The X-Files again. [The podcast] got pretty popular. It was on EW’s “Must List,” which is unbelievable, and now it’s a job. I’ve given myself another job.

BLVR: You have fifty jobs.

KN: I have so many jobs! A lot of what I do in the morning is watch an X-Files episode and take notes on it, and then I have a lot of segments. I have one segment where I look up what the creators and writers and directors of the episode say later, their take on it in interviews now. The X-Files is considered one of the first shows that had a really engaged online audience, so I started doing this thing where I go back and look up message boards from 1993, from that week, and what people were saying about the show the week that it came out.

BLVR: How different was the internet then? Are you noticing that people were more sincere?

KN: People were more sincere. The conversations are slightly better—although you can see that trolling is starting a little bit. There’s no shortcuts to fucking smiley face; there’s not, like, “AFK” or “LOL” or “BRB,” there’s none of that. It’s people saying full sentences. A lot of the people who were writing were professors—they have their little signature at the bottom. I guess those are the people who were really engaged.

BLVR: They had the internet at universities before everyone got it at home.

KN: That’s right! That’s why it’s interesting. It’s all smart people. People are so interested, and love the show so much, and there’s a lot of guessing about what the show is and what it’s going to be. I found one episode where afterward people are talking a lot about a specific character—just having a conversation about what this character’s deal is. This aired in November of 1993. And then I’m watching an episode that aired in, like, February ’94 and I thought, Oh, they’re focusing a lot on that character they were talking about. I found out—they’ve said this in interviews—they read that conversation on that message board. The creators read it.

BLVR: It’s a fan-fiction dream.

KN: Isn’t it amazing? They were hearing what people wanted and letting that affect the show. I see the same names on the message board, and it’s maybe fifteen people. Those fifteen people had such a hand in steering where the show was going to go. You don’t write in a vacuum. You listen to feedback.

BLVR: Now the way of thinking is “Don’t read the comments!”

KN: Now it’s a nightmare out there.

BLVR: You’ve already watched all of The X-Files?

KN: I’m gonna tell you something that might sound worrying, but it is not worrying: this is the fourth time that I’m watching The X-Files. I watched it when it was on, then after college my roommate hadn’t watched it so I watched it with him. I had all the DVDs. Then with Emily. And now this is the fourth time.

BLVR: Speaking of repetition, you’re also doing the same exact thing in stand-up every day. You’re saying the exact same words, standing on a stage.

KN: It feels different every time. Obviously sometimes you get sick of stuff and the audience can tell, and it goes away. Things are really funny and then they’re not funny anymore. The trick is to get it recorded in some form while you’re still excited about it. But I really love performing. It’s sort of like acting, where you take the same line forty times but you have to say it like you just thought of it. That’s the exciting thing about stand-up. The trick is to write it and then forget it and then remember it onstage. When you are onstage and you already know the whole thing by rote, that’s when the life sort of goes out of it.

I read a thing about freestyle rappers: when they’re in the flow, their brain is working differently. Onstage I can come up with the lines faster than I could come up with them when I’m just sitting down, because there’s adrenaline. You’re excited; there’s no safety net.

BLVR: How did you figure out your process of writing out your act?

KN: I was just so nervous to do stand-up in the beginning that it helped me to have something that I could memorize. I only started writing every day when I quit my day job. I would literally be like, “All right, this is a story that happened. It’s not that funny or interesting. Let’s see if I can make it something.” I decided I would write for at least ten minutes every day, and hopefully it would turn into a longer period. I also have a big rewards system: “If I do this much writing, then I can do this much video games, then I have to write more…” I earn points.

BLVR: You can’t have a pleasurable moment without counterbalancing it with the hard work that earns you that moment?

KN: Yeah. Everything is like that, every day.

BLVR: That’s completely self-imposed.

KN: It is! But if it’s not sacred, what’s the point in having it? It really works for me. I’ll get up in the morning and I’ll write, then I’ll go to the gym, then I’ll eat, then I can watch a TV show, then I’ll write more.

BLVR: Everything you’re mentioning is still part of your work. I haven’t heard one thing that you’re doing that doesn’t relate directly to your work. You have to be on TV, so you have to go to the gym. You watch a TV show for your work.  I haven’t heard of you doing anything frivolous.

KN: I watched Orange Is the New Black!

BLVR: For fun?

KN: No, I’m gonna start a podcast. Podcast Is the New Black. [Laughs]

BLVR: Do you act because you’re an actor, or do you act because that’s what comedians have to do if they eventually want to make any money?

KN: I love acting. I love it so much.

BLVR: Did you know you loved it before you started doing it?

KN: No! I didn’t, and it happened because of Michael Showalter. I was writing for their show—he and Michael Ian Black had this show called Michael and Michael Have Issues. They were like, “All the writers have to act. You have to be in the show.” So they wrote little scenes for us and I had to audition to play myself four times for Comedy Central. It worked out. As soon I started doing it I was like, “Oh, this is amazing!” I just love working.

BLVR: You have a bit of a reputation.

KN: What’s my reputation?

BLVR: You have a reputation for being “ruthlessly driven.” I’ve heard this from different people. I don’t even know what they mean by it, because I’m not in the comedy world. Maybe you just have more ambition than anyone?

KN: No, that’s not true! People are way more ambitious than I am.

BLVR: I think a lot of comedians look at themselves as lazy, and you don’t.

KN: No, I do think of myself as lazy.

BLVR: How?

KN: It’s the whole guilt thing.

BLVR: Where is the guilt coming from?

KN: Religion, man! That’s where it’s coming from! Islam! That’s where it’s coming from! The whole religion of Islam is based on reward and punishment and reward and punishment, and it becomes a part of how you think of everything. Even yourself. So even if you lose Islam, that stuff stays with you.

BLVR: I read an interview where you said you studied philosophy in college and it led you to have an existential crisis.

KN: I was doing philosophy because I liked doing it. I felt like I was good at making arguments and constructing logical criticisms.

BLVR: Which is kind of what you do in comedy.

KN: I guess. I mean, philosophy is problem-solving. There’s a philosophical problem, and then you try to solve it by approaching it from different angles and seeing what way works. That’s what comedy is: you have a topic and you try to just hit it as many different ways as you can.

Anyway, I had this existential crisis. I was on this path to becoming a computer-science guy, but I didn’t like it. I got no joy from it. It was very, very scary. It was suffocating to think that I was just going to do this thing for the rest of my life. So I had one summer where I just smoked a lot of cigarettes and thought, What am I doing?

It wasn’t until Emily came along that it was like, “All right, it’s time to make a decision. Are you going to half-ass it, have one foot in one foot out and just sort of do it?” It was not that I decided to do comedy, it was that I decided…

BLVR: …not to do the thing you didn’t like.

KN: Yeah! It was, again, a process of elimination. This feels wrong, this feels wrong, this feels wrong, this doesn’t feel wrong. Let’s see what this is about.

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